School calendar change boosts attendance and achievement

School calendar change boosts attendance and achievement

(Alaska) In a state with one of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in the country, one school district’s move to adjust the school calendar to align with student lifestyles has led to a spike in attendance and academic achievement.

Lake and Peninsula Borough School District officials trimmed 10 days off the beginning of the year and 10 days off the end of the year starting with the 2017-18 school year–a decision that allowed students more time during hunting and fishing seasons to help their families stock up on food.

As a result, the district saw attendance rates jump from 92 percent to 96 percent in one year. Improvements were also made on statewide assessments, with proficiency in English language arts increasing from 28.5 percent to 37.7 percent, and in math from 21.4 percent to 28.3 percent.

“A lot of our kids are out fishing, berry picking and hunting in August and early September, and there’s also the spring migration, and subsistence hunting for birds begins in May,” district superintendent Ty Mase said in an interview, noting that attendance in the beginning of the year was always especially sparse.

That isn’t uncommon in many parts of the state, according to Marcy Herman, legislative liaison for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

“A large portion of our population lives a subsistence lifestyle. This means when the fish are running, families are fishing; when the caribou and moose are in season, families are hunting in order to fill their freezers for the long winters,” Herman said in an email.

Alaska has the third highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the country, according to the most recent federal civil rights data. During the 2015-16 school year, 26 percent of children statewide were chronically absent.

Chronic absenteeism has been linked to poor short term academic and long term life outcomes. Research shows that as early as sixth grade, students who are chronically absent are more likely to drop out from high school–and dropping out can make a child more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their life.

As part of the state’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, education officials have committed to helping schools reduce chronic absenteeism, but Herman said there are unique and unavoidable circumstances faced by Alaskan families that can potentially exacerbate the rates of chronic absenteeism.

For students residing in rural communities, for instance, accessing medical or dental care, or participating in school athletics, college tours or cultural events may require an absence of several days from school.

“While you and I can drive down the road for a routine dental visit or a root canal, rural students will more than likely need to take a boat, snow machine, and/or a plane to another village or town in order to seek care,” Herman said.

Lake and Peninsula Borough schools are trying to address those issues as well. Mase said the district is working to partner with clinics and dental teams who visit school sites and provide services after the school day so that kids aren’t being pulled out during the year.

The decision to adopt a school calendar that accommodates a subsistence lifestyle was largely based on financial reasons, according to Mase. Facing a “huge deficit,” the Lake and Peninsula Borough school board was looking for ways to avoid cutting student services, hot lunch programs or preschool offerings.

They found attendance was slim at the start of the school year, as well as the tail end after state assessments were completed.

The Commissioner of Education approved the district’s plan to delay the start of school until September 5, and end on May 1. Officials also made Fridays full-length school days–they had originally been counted as early release days that allowed teachers time for professional development. Now teachers participate after regular-length school days.

Mase said that because the district runs on a performance-based system, cutting that number of days doesn’t affect schools like it would in other districts. Students move through their standards at their individual pace, and can graduate at any time when they complete their standards–meaning some may graduate after completing 10th grade while others may have to go beyond their 12th grade year.

While the amount of time a student spends in class or the length of the school year is somewhat irrelevant under such a system, Mase said ensuring that students get the most out of the time they can spend in the classroom is vitally important.

“We put an emphasis on attendance and communicated a lot with families about the importance of attendance, especially with us shortening the school year, and the parents and our communities really rallied around that,” Mase said. “And reducing our school year and cutting August and May has had a much more positive effect on student performance than taking away the hot lunch program or cutting preschool would have.”

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